The Kalimböa

African piano

The “Kalimböa” is an instrument whose roots are in Africa. It is called there by different names, depending on the country where it is found, such as: senza (Cameroon), likembe (Zimbabwe), mangambeu (Sierra Leone), kalimba (Uganda); and it is widely known as the “thumb piano” or “African piano.” Each variation has its own characteristics; some have resonator boxes made of simple wood construction while others have them made of gourds. The number of notes and chords vary according to the country of origin of the instrument and the musicians playing it.

An instrument that is closely associated with the griots (poets, storytellers, musicians) of West Africa, the thumb piano is very commonly found in music throughout Africa, and in the world music in general.

The Kalimböa

The Kalimböa is my own personal version of the thumb piano and comes in three models: the K-9 and the K-11 (in reference to the number of notes produced by the instrument) and the K-11-E who’s semi electric so you can plug in an amplifier using the same wire as for guitar. All models have a resonator box that has three holes: a larger one on the soundboard, which helps the sound resonate, and a smaller one on each side of the box, which, when alternately covered and uncovered by the fingers, produce a wawa effect.

Each model has its own individual harmonic range. It is possible to make modifications to the sound or to change the tuning by making a sliding adjustment of the resonating keys (tines). The length of these metal tines determines the pitch: the longer they are, the lower the pitch, and the shorter they are, the higher the pitch.

The tension on the resonating keys is adjusted by tightening or loosening the tension bar, with the aid of the Allen key (especially useful for changing the tuning of the Kalimböa.)

To play

The most natural way to play the instrument is to hold it between the two hands and use the thumbs to gently make the keys vibrate. The deepest note is located in the centre, the next deepest just to its left, the third to the right of the first, the fourth to the left of the second, the fifth to the right of the third, and so on until the highest note.

Another playing technique is to lay the instrument on a flat surface and then strike the keys in the same manner as with a keyboard, using all the fingers. You will notice that the surface on which you rest the Kalimböa will have an effect on its resonance. The results can be very astonishing, especially when it is placed on a skin drum (djembe, conga, doundoun, drum set, etc.). A wooden table or crate and even a cardboard box will also produce interesting effects. You can experiment to get your own sound.

The Kalimböa is an excellent instrument for playing by ear and for improvisation. The harmonic ranges I’ve chosen will allow you to easily create your own melodies and to enjoy a wonderfully positive musical experience. Accompanying the playing with singing can help to support and develop the rhythm. And see Youtube for a wealth of videos that will inspire you.

Happy discovery!